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Alaska: A Small Political World for a Very Large State

For the largest state in the union, Alaska politics can be a very small world.

The two Members up for re-election this year, Sen. Ted Stevens (R) and Rep. Don Young (R), have combined for more than five decades in Congress, leaving limited room for mobility for Alaska Republicans. [IMGCAP(1)]

“Republicans have a lot of options, but they have been bottlenecked because they didn’t want to run against incumbents,” said Republican pollster Dave Dittman. “And that’s still the case. There isn’t anybody who wants to run against Ted Stevens.”

Stevens and Young insist they’re sticking around in 2008, despite recent investigations by federal agents involving certain business and campaign activities in the state. Though rumors of primary challenges against both have been widely circulated, state Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux (R) is the only candidate to have mounted an intra-party challenge against Young.

Dittman said a couple of would-be major Republican candidates have contacted him about doing work for their potential Senate campaigns, but only if Stevens does not run for re-election. The GOP-controlled state legislature has provided a training ground for potential Republican candidates, he added.

“The Republican bench through the legislatures has been very strong because they’ve been in control for a long time,” Dittman said. “They’ve got a lot of people with experience.”

Outside of the state legislature, many eyes are on Gov. Sarah Palin (R), who rode the reform wave to win a three-way contested primary in 2006 — one that included a sitting governor — to take her seat. Palin is often talked about as a potential candidate for Senate in 2008 if Stevens does not run, but Republican operatives in the state say she is merely “flirting” with the idea of a bid.

Other Republicans mentioned as possible Senate candidates if Stevens does not run include Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, 2006 gubernatorial candidate John Binkley, and 1996 Senate candidate and real estate developer David Cuddy.

Meanwhile, Democrats are hoping to recruit popular Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich to run for Senate in 2008 — and the expectation among Alaska Democrats is that he will get in the race.

According to Leslie Ridle, who has two statewide campaigns under her belt and currently works for Begich, the mayor is seriously considering a bid.

“I think it’s a big family decision and

he’s definitely been interested in the idea,” Ridle said. “He’s always said it’s a matter of how he can serve the state … and what capacity is the best. It’s got to be a big decision for him and his family.”

An Anchorage candidate is a huge plus for a statewide campaign because about 40 percent of Alaskans live in the city and the media market reaches 70 percent of the state. The city tends to be a swing area, so Begich could be a large draw come Election Day.

Democrats also are taking a serious look at the race against Young, for which three candidates already have announced their campaigns. Former state House Minority Leader and 2006 lieutenant governor nominee Ethan Berkowitz, former state Democratic Party Chairman Jake Metcalfe, and 2006 nominee Diane Benson, a former Green Party member, have all announced their candidacies.

“Diane ran and got 42 percent when no one thought she had a chance at all,” Dittman said. “And now the others are jumping in now that she’s paved the way. … I still think Ethan is more likely to be the winner out of those three. Jake doesn’t have any statewide recognition and Diana does because she ran last time, but Ethan is probably considered more acceptable among the Democrats,” Dittman added.

Alaska Democrats are a small club in a very large state. And Berkowitz said the membership list has only gotten smaller.

“Republicans have gained members (in the state legislature), Democrats have lost members since the FBI raids,” Berkowitz said. “And that has to change. Democrats have not always fielded candidates in down-ballot races, so it gets harder for candidates to run on top of those races.”

Ridle pointed out that former state Rep. and gubernatorial candidate Eric Croft (D), now a city prosecutor, could run for Anchorage mayor if Begich runs for Senate. She also said she could “easily see” state Sen. Hollis French (D) as “being a statewide candidate someday,” along with former state Rep. Gretchen Guess (D). Another Democrat in the state said French potentially could run for Senate if Begich does not go for it.

“[Alaska politics is] incredibly small,” said a Democratic insider. “But in Democratic circles, it’s even smaller. You could mow your lawn and see [former Gov.] Tony Knowles and Gretchen Guess.”

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